The most important phone call of McInnes' career
A phone call from Cameron McInnes to Paul McGregor to say he no longer wanted to join St George Illawarra has indirectly led to the proud South Sydney junior captaining the Dragons against the club where he was touted as a future skipper.
McInnes, who will share the captaincy duties with Tyson Frizell in Saturday night's sudden-death semi-final against the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium, had been poised to sign with St George Illawarra for the 2016 season but Souths persuaded him to stay after Issac Luke's shock departure for the Warriors.
It was then that McInnes made what may be the most important phone call of his career, and one that ensured the door was still open at the Dragons when he decided to leave the Rabbitohs the following year.
"I just phoned Mary out of respect because I had only met him once or twice but he is one of the most genuine people I had ever met and he would do anything for anybody," McInnes said.
"I just wanted to call him out of respect and he understood my decision fully and he was really good about it. Then 12 months later I had the opportunity to speak to him again and he was as supportive of me as he was the year before."
After deciding to stay at Souths, he shared the hooking role with Damien Cook in 2016 but the club's decision to sign Robbie Farah at the end of that season prompted the former Junior Kangaroos and Rabbitohs under 20s captain to question his future at Redfern.
He again picked up the phone to McGregor and asked if there was an opportunity in 2017.
The Dragons had been in a contractual stand-off with hooker Mitch Rein and Heath L'Estrange was retiring so McGregor approached the club's director of pathways Ian Millward.
"When we were first looking at signing Cam, we had Mitch and we looked at bringing another hooker in," McGregor said.
"He had done some really good things in under 20s and as a junior, and I just thought he was a special player.
"Then Issac went to the Warriors and he rang me, and said 'I want to stay. It's my junior club'. I appreciated that and I understood. If someone comes through as a junior and there is opportunity at that club you should stay there so I was happy for him to stay there. It is the same with our juniors.
"At the end of 2016, Cam rang me again and said, 'is there a chance I could come now?' The club and Mitch had decided to go different ways and Robbie had turned up at Souths.
"He had been happy to take on Cookie but Souths had decided to bring in a third hooker, who was an experienced one, so Cam said obviously the pathway there was blocked and he wanted to know if there was a pathway for him at our club."
Coincidentally, Cook - an Illawarra junior - had been in the Dragons' system and he played for the club in 2012 and 2013 before moving to Canterbury and then joining South Sydney in 2016 after Luke left.
Cook started six matches at hooker in 2016 and 10 last year but he has emerged as arguably the most improved player in the game this season and edged McInnes for the NSW No.9 jersey.
"Cam's a really good player, I rate him very highly, especially training alongside him as well, I know how hard he works," Cook said of his friendly rivalry with McInnes.
"We got along really well when he was here [at Souths] and we still do.
"I managed to get the Origin jersey this year but it's sudden-death footy now and being an ex-Bunny, he'll be looking to get the job done over his old team as well. It's always exciting playing against your old team."
McInnes insists he has now moved on and points out Saturday night's semi-final will be his 50th Telstra Premiership appearance for St George Illawarra, whereas he played 39 for the Rabbitohs.
"I am very thankful to Souths for giving me my start and also for allowing me to move on but I will always be in debt to Mary and the Dragons for taking a punt on me," McInnes said.
"I love the club, I am grateful for the opportunity they have given me and the belief that Mary showed in me from the first time I spoke to him made me feel really good. I have so much respect for Mary and I always want to play as hard as I can and do the job for the Dragons each week."
With Gareth Widdop out for the season after disclocating his shoulder in last Sunday's 48-18 elimination final defeat of Brisbane, McInnes and Frizell will share the captaincy role as they did when the English playmaker was absent for the previous three matches.
McInnes, who topped Marist College Pagewood in the 2011 HSC for biology, business studies and advanced English, while attaining Band 6 results for business studies and personal development, health and physical education, had been considered by many at Souths as a future captain.
"I remember there was some talk about that, but I was never focused on that," he said. "I was only a young kid trying to play some first-grade footy and it is no different now.
"The leadership role is something I embrace regardless of whether I am captain or not because I want to do the right thing by my team-mates. Having the 'C' next to my name, especially for such a great club, is a huge honour and I am very proud of that."
Despite only being in his second season at the Dragons, McInnes is a member of their four-man leadership group along with Widdop, Frizell and James Graham – and McGregor said he was an obvious choice for the captaincy role.
"With Cam, what you see on the field is pretty much what you see every day. He is hard working and will do anything that is needed for the team so he is easy to coach," McGregor said.
"James just does what he does anyway so he doesn’t need the C next to his name, Tyson is a leader by his inspirational stuff and Cam is a good talker who plays 80 minutes. Cam and Tyson will share the role but when Tyson is off the field Cam is the captain."